Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages
“these vivid studies of famous personalities and their interaction do tell us in some cases more about them than we knew, and perhaps confirm that this struggling model of conventional marriage is a thing of the past.”
In her entertaining book the Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages, Carmela Ciuraru explores the lives of five literary wives, claiming in her Introduction that “they are a unique breed” whose work in tending the “outsize needs of the Great Writer” is never done; “the literary lion is powerful on the page but a helpless kitten in daily life.”
She appears to think that the spousal inequality and asymmetry is unique to literary marriages, and that the bias, initially at least, always favors the male partner. In fact, most of her chapters show both partners equally in thrall to gender stereotypes, conformity to which erodes at a more or less dramatic rate, which is pretty much what happens in many more banal marriages after all.
And not all her examples show the male partner (only) as a monster of ego, with whom it would be very difficult to co-exist. Some male examples, Alberto Moravia stands out here, seeming to possess what Joan Didion called “a genius for accommodation” beyond the reasonable expectations of any spouse. And perhaps some women even with literary aspirations of their own, have wilfully, and not entirely irrationally, chosen with their eyes open to marry a rich and famous writer? Perhaps they were not equating “rich and famous” with “nice and good” and had decided what combination they would prefer.
In short while the level of detail—and amusement—Ciuraru brings to each of her marriage portraits is not in doubt, her attempts to draw out general sociological principles to be applied to all literary marriages fails to convince and would be better abandoned. Although, perhaps, this publication is the first of a “thematic” series looking at similar dynamics in marriages of other creative couples; or of asymmetrical relationships in general (marriages of Presidents and Prime Ministers, airline executives, dotcom millionaires, Archbishops etc). Or perhaps there is in the works a partner series on literary husbands—the spouses of Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf, and Agatha Christie? Time will tell.
So it is best to plunge into these rich, witty, well-researched narratives as un-ashamedly catering to the universal interest in celebrity gossip, rather than expecting the lives of the five literary wives to illustrate some unique sociological principle.
The marriages under review are those between Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall (the only same-sex example); Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia; Elaine Dundy and Kenneth Tynan; Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis; Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl.
The disagreeable nature of several of these male geniuses will be well-known to many readers. Kingsley Amis stands out here for his generally unacceptable views on all minorities, including women, which he had never bothered to hide, expressing them in frequent interviews and voluminous correspondence. When his wife, Jane, who was already an author in her own right, as well as facilitating every aspect of Kingsley’s personal and professional life, tried to make a bid for freedom he would say “It’s got to stay like this . . . because I’m older, heavier and I earn more money.” But then, as she confesses, he still always made her laugh!
With some variations of detail, the relationships follow familiar trajectories through passionate involvement, to waning sexual interest and infidelity, and to each party wanting their own way, more than they wanted each other. Nevertheless, these vivid studies of famous personalities and their interaction do tell us in some cases more about them than we knew, and perhaps confirm that this struggling model of conventional marriage is a thing of the past.